Soledad Prison Guards Refuse To Wear Safety Masks Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

So apparently, guards at Soledad State Prison didn’t get the memo from the CDC delineating the countrywide requirement for citizens to wear “face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” which includes grocery stores, pharmacies, and undoubtedly California’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.

They couldn’t be oblivious to these recommendations because every time yard is released, officer Woods makes an announcement over the more than 30 year old intercom system, reminding the inmate population to practice social distancing, and to wear a face covering when purchasing items through the canteen window on the yard, which is operated by “Free Staff.”

When asked why we are required to wear masks while correctional officers and free staff aren’t, (although free staff often do cover themselves) it was said that it was to protect the inmate population from being infected by someone who may have brought it into the institution. But, common sense would tell you that if this virus was to spread throughout California’s prison system, as it has already in prisons in the midwest and the east coast, that it would likely stem from the guards coming in and out.

Unfortunately, only the inmates are required to wear face coverings here at Soledad, and we can be punished for not complying, which is ironic because just weeks before the pandemic occurred, I was wearing a covering over my face to protect myself from contracting Valley Fever, which is prevalent in this area, as well as being more likely to affect African Americans, and was threatened by correctional officers who told me “how many times do we have to tell you guys to not cover your face. If I have to tell you again, you’re getting a 115 (Rules Violation Report).”

When I told them that I was wearing it to protect myself from getting Valley Fever, which almost killed my Muslim brother, Dawud, (David Turner; who has an open case in court against CDCR holding them responsible for having him work in an environment where they knew he’d likely contract Valley Fever) they responded, “we don’t give a fuck.” I already knew that so they didn’t have to tell me. But I didn’t give a fuck either as I turned the corner out of their sight and pulled my face covering back in place.

But I would have bet my freedom that once news began to spread about the importance of wearing face coverings to protect the most vulnerable, that correctional officers here would be the first to be required to wear them. I was wrong. Correctional officers here at Soledad State Prison, once again, prove by their actions that they believe they are above the law.

Thoughts On Veterans Day

While we bask in the glory of Veterans Day, under the impression that all who fought in the armed forces, did so for the same reasons, let us not forget that there has always been a segment of the population that has never been viewed as equal, abroad or when returning home from war. Mudbound was more than a movie. It was the reality of so many blacks drafted into America’s armed forces.

Let us also not forget that upon returning from war, blacks had an awakened consciousness. During World War II, Black men who were drafted into the war and deployed to Italy, France, and Germany immediately recognized the similarities between American racism and that experienced by Jews under Nazi oppression.

It is to this time in history that we trace the birth of the popular usage of the term “ghetto” to refer to the living conditions of blacks in America. In his Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier points out that black scholars in the 1940’s used the term Ghetto in direct response to “the rise in attention to the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe.” In other words, black scholars used this term as a political statement highlighting the reality of the black experience.

Blacks weren’t blind to the reality of their own oppression, nor to their responsibility. Those in the Black press proclaimed, “Our war is not against Hitler in Europe but against the Hitlers in America.”

So as we remember those who fought to liberate others, let us not forget those who fought (and continue to fight) to liberate themselves.

The Term “Ghetto,” Circa 1940

The term Ghetto, as used in reference to America’s inner-citys, is inextricably connected to the Ghettos of Europe, in such a way that to understand one is to understand the other.

During World War II, Black men who were drafted into the war and deployed to Italy, France and Germany, Immediately recognized the similarities between American racism and that of European minorities, mainly Jews. In his “Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea,” Mitchell Duneier points out that black scholars in the 40s used the term Ghetto in direct response to “the rise in attention to the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe.”

black scholars use of the term Ghetto was a political statement. Or as Raphael Magarik said in his “Understanding Americas Ghettos Starts With the First Jewish One” that:

“Black writers mined the analogy between the two ghettos, and particularly the horror of Nazi misdeeds in Warsaw, to wake American whites from their racial apathy…”

So, there are two points to be noted here. The first is that the use of the term Ghetto was used in black American literature, from the onset, as a political statement. Magarik states this was done “to wake American whites from their racial apathy.” I would add that more importantly this was done to reawaken the political consciousness of blacks enabling them to see the sacrifices and gains made by their Jewish counterparts. And secondly, although the term Ghetto has come to be used in reference to any low-income inner-city neighborhood, I would posit, as Duneier argues, that what has become a generic term has a very specific meaning: “a space for the intrusive control of poor blacks.” and although other “minorities” may live in these Ghettos, blacks were sequestered into Ghettos in the North for the same reason they were lynched in the South; Fear. And this fear persisted and transformed into law keeping blacks from bettering their living conditions. For Blacks the Ghetto became a Trap, whereas other minorities were offered an inroad to “whiteness,” as well as a pathway out of the Ghetto.

Excerpted from my upcoming book:

“The Whole Fire: The Origin Of The Ghetto, And The Creation Of Two Americas.”

I Was A Child On Trial For Murder

I was in the county jail on trial for murder. I had just turned eighteen and the reality of my predicament hadn’t yet fully hit me. The possibility that I could be convicted of murder and sentenced to a lifetime in state prison hadn’t even began to settle in my mind as becoming my reality.

Periodically however, I would see this reality in the faces of those close to me. At visiting through the Plexiglas I would see the fear in the eyes of my brother Donnell as if he somehow could see a reality I was unable to grasp in my own reflection. There was something about the subtlety of expressions in that which wasn’t said.

His eyes had the look of someone who had been granted a glimpse into the future but couldn’t bring himself to speak it into existence. At times i could see it with clarity, but looking back I realize that I intentionally buried, or rather distorted a pending reality.

Islam and “Slut-Shaming”

There’s an incident that occurred in Islamic history that I want to share with you. But first, I would like to introduce you to a phrase. “SLUT SHAMING”

Here, we will be discussing “slut shaming” in reference to the expectations of a woman’s behavior. Particularly, how a community reacted to a woman based on her actions which were contrary to their societal norms.

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It occurred on a journey involving early Muslims. On this journey, the prophet Muhammad was accompanied by his wife ‘Aisha. The caravan would stop periodically, and those traveling would set up camp. In the morning, they would continue on their journey.

One morning, while the caravan was preparing to leave, ‘Aisha realized she couldn’t find her necklace (which was a gift from her husband). In the process of looking for this necklace, not realizing she was gone, the caravan left without her, and she, not thinking the caravan would leave without looking for her, fell asleep hoping to be awaken by a search party.
But they didn’t know she was missing.
Luckily a companion of the prophet, who had been charged with the task of making sure nothing or no one was left behind, had finished his task of checking the camp site, and was on his way to join the caravan when he noticed ‘Aisha sitting on the side of the road crying. He picked her up and they rejoined the caravan.
Whispers started to circulate among those traveling that ‘Aisha hadn’t lost her necklace, but that she conjured that story up as an excuse to cover up her secret love affair.

What happened next is profound. Islam has within it the phenomena of real-time revelation; that is, revelation of Scripture as incidents occur. In this particular instance it was revealed the 24th Chapter, 12th Verse:

“Why, when you heard it, (the rumor of ‘Aisha’s love affair) didn’t the believing men and believing women think better of themselves, and say, “this is a clear lie”?…”

The verse, clearly referring to the above incident, could have easily said “why didn’t (they) think better of ‘Aisha…” Which would have been sufficient. But this is part of the miracle of the Qur’an. It possess nuances that are meant to elevate our thinking. The wording of the verse establishes what is known as husn al zann (positive presumption) or (thinking well [of others]” it invites the idea of “treating others how you’d like to be treated.”

In this era of social media where everyone has an opinion about everyone and everything (most of the time a NEGATIVE opinion) we can learn from the wisdom of the Qur’an. The Qur’an doesn’t promote a judgmental outlook. And I would add that, at the core, no religious perspective invites us to be critical. However, the problem occurs when we assume the role of “Religious Police” who feel as if what others do (or don’t do) somehow affects our position with God, when in fact the text that we profess to believe in states unequivocally “you are only responsible for your own soul.”

We are too quick to state what is “wrong.” Maybe we should invest more in seeing what’s “right.”

Is Your Islam Intersectional? When Hoda Katebi gives you life.

How do you react when you’re in prison and call home and your wife tells you that Hoda Katebi liked your post about her on the page she (your wife) created and manages for you?

Backstory:

My wife sent me an article called Notes From A Muslim Feminist out of BUST Magazine by Hoda Katebi. the article was a breath of fresh air. in a world congested by pollution I took a deep breath. I called my wife the first chance I got, and asked her to post the following image and quote, to my Instagram:

“Meet @hodakatebi …unapologetic and wit the business!!! Read her work Joojoo Azad.com and in BUST Magazine at bust.com”

Yes, it’s JUST a “like,” and YES I’m “Fanning out.”…oh, you must have missed the part where I said I was in prison.

So as a lot of you know, I have been in prison for 15 years. And like many in my position, I was attracted to Islam. But like too many of us, I had a narrow view of Islam. I had no idea, and no in-depth understanding of Islam’s underlying principles (Maqasid). Simply said, my perspective was one dimensional; certain societal norms I took as universals. Patriarchy being one of them. That is, until I became aware of the teachings and works of religious leaders, organizers, and social activist like Suhaib Webb @suhaib.webb , Linda Sarsour @lsarsour , Yasmin Mogahed @yasminmogahed ,and most recently, Hoda Katebi @hodakatabi who inspired me to question things I took at face value.

I always knew Islam’s general outlook towards Women’s Rights in the examples of the financial independence of Lady Khadija (alayha salaam), the spirit of being outspoken in her daughter Fatima Zahra (alayha salaam). How it was the revelation of the Qur’an that prohibited Infanticide, which was common custom in the Arabian peninsula prior to the revelation of the Qur’an. But what about LGBT rights, Feminism, Intersectionality??? What is Islam’s true outlook about patriarchy or toxic masculinity, and what is our responsibility? These are topics I plan to discuss in upcoming blogs because I believe they’re extremely important.

But I would like to end with this:

Allah (ta ‘Ala) says in the 4th chapter, 75th verse of the Qur’an:

“Why do you not fight in the way of Allah on behalf of the oppressed from among the men women and children…?”

And the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa salaam) said in a hadith recorded in the Musnad of Ahmad, on the authority of Anas ibn Malik: 

“Beware of the du’a (prayer) of the oppressed, even if he (Or she) is a unbeliever, for there is no barrier between it and Allah.”

So, as we approach this holy month of Ramadan, we should reflect on the following question:

“Is your Islam intersectional?”

An Authentic Cultural Expression: Why I Chose To Follow The Minhaj Of Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio

It has been said that Islam is like a clear stream, and the smooth rocks beneath that stream, in the riverbed, represent our culture; The clarity of the water only enhances the beauty of the stones beneath.

In accepting Islam, it is easy, and almost inevitable, that one will confuse Arab cultural practices with the religion itself. For new Muslims, style of dress, grooming, and even speech, often take on a “Middle Eastern” flare. However, nothing in Islam commands a Muslim to abandon his (or her) cultural norm. In fact, the opposite is true. TheQur’an states, in the 7th Chapter and 199th Verse, as a command:

“Accept from people what comes naturally for them; command what is good by custom…”

Or as one scholar explained in an article entitled What role does culture play in Islam:

“Cultural conventions make up a fundamental part of identity and have a strong hold over people accustomed to them. Islamic law acknowledges this reality and expresses it in the form of the legal maxim: ‘Custom is second nature’ (al-ʿāda ṭabīʿa thāniya).”

So, the idea is that Islam will have a distinct look that is predicated on the environment. It is the environment that brings life to Islamic teachings and practices. Like stones of a riverbed; If the stones are red, the water will appear to have a reddish tint to it. If there is algae on the stones, the water will appear to have a greenish tint. Likewise with our culture. Islam in China has a distinct look that is unique to Chinese culture. Islamic expression in Bosnia or Serbia doesn’t share the same expression as Chinese culture, etc.

When I embraced Islam, I was attracted to the teachings of the school of thought known as “Shi’ah ithna Ashari” (Shi’ah). I didn’t realize it at the time, but my cultural expression slowly began to become that of an Iranian (which dominates the Shi’ah Islamic ethos). My social, political, and spiritual talking points were those of Iranian culture. When we talked about spirituality, I referred to the Arafeen (Sufi Mystics) of Iran. If we were talking politics, I referred to Ayatullah Khomeini or how Ahmadinijad spoke so eloquently on 60 minutes. If we spoke about societal reform, I referred to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

What I didn’t realize was that I had become a geopolitical pawn; an insignificant piece in the hands of those who couldn’t care less about my authentic cultural expression.

As someone of African descent, I knew from my early studies that Africa had a rich history of Islamic expression that transformed the entire continent. This transformation, then spilled into Europe via Spain (Al Andalus). Much of the technological advances we benefit from today can be traced to what is known as “The Golden Age.” From Mathematics in the introduction of Algebra, which is named after the Muslim (Al Jabar) who discovered this form, to Medical techniques that were introduced by Ibn Sina in his al Qanun fi al Tibb (encyclopedia of Medicine) which is still studied today.

It was learning this information, and realizing that it was because of African Islamic scholarship that the world (quite literally) was transformed, that led me to look further into this African Islamic expression. What I found has transformed my life.

I was introduced, early on in my conversion, to the works of a scholar named Muhammad Shareef. He has translated many of the works responsible for shaping the personalities instrumental in transforming how the world was known. These works were written by what are known as the Fudiawwa scholars, who were students of the most prolific scholar of west Africa, Shehu Uthman dan Fodio. Not only has he translated the works of these students, but he’s translated the works of Shehu Uthman dan Fodio himself. These works ranged from historical, sociopolitical, linguistic, and spiritual in nature. But because I was a Shi’ah and this scholar and these works were of the Sunni brand of Islam, I read them but didn’t internalize them (or so I thought). Throughout the years of my incarceration I would gravitate to his works. He wrote a piece on the Bahia slave revolts of Brazil in the 1800’s that was beyond inspiring. For someone incarcerated, the idea of a slave revolt was novel. But more so, what attracted me was the spiritual endurance that these slaves possessed. This piece became my companion.

Throughout the years, I would come across new works by Muhammad Shareef, (who is affectionally referred to as “the Shaykh”). These works reflected the times we were living in. He wrote a commentary on a book called “Risalatul Amarad ash shafiyya” (a letter concerning disease and healing) which dealt with the deteriorating conditions of the Jama’at of the Shehu. And alongside an explanation of the conditions of the time and place this text was referring to, the Shaykh gave an exhaustive commentary on the issues affecting the Islamic community today. From the Asymmetrical Barbarism of ISIS, to the lack of authentic scholarship. Not only did he deal with issues affecting Muslims, but issues affecting society in general, and America in particular. Particular emphasis was placed on the wave of unarmed people of color being shot by police. It was this awareness that attracted me, and in 2016 I began my new journey.

One of the first texts that we studied was “Kitab Usul ud Deen” (Book on the Fundamentals of Faith). This book is, by far, the most concise text on the fundamentals of faith that I have ever read. It has given me an in depth understanding of Islamic theology, which, in my initial journey through this subject, was taught in a way that was so complicated it was daunting. Currently, we are in the process of memorizing the entire text, of which I have 1/3 in memory (in Arabic). For the first time in my journey through various Islamic traditions, I can finally say I’m home.

Why I Became Muslim: A Prisoners Choice

I became Muslim in 2004 in the county jail. Years earlier my older brother had become Muslim while he was in CYA (California Youth Authority). When he was released I was in juvenile hall, but we would talk regularly and he would give me jewels here and there about Islam, but nothing major. Before I was released from juvi I read the Autobiography of Malcom X, which had a major impact on me.

when I came home my brother Ovy (Sadiq Aziz Amir) would sit with me and explain to me the origin of Islam and how the Qur’an is the only religious text that hasn’t been tampered with. He showed me, in what I now know was the second chapter of the Qur’an, that Islam believed in the same Prophets that were mentioned in biblical text. The main difference he said, was that Muslims believe Jesus (peace be upon him) was a mortal being, a Prophet like the rest. He told me that our ancestors were more than likely Muslim when they were brought here as slaves, but were forced to accept christianity…and honestly from then on I considered myself Muslim (just not practicing). When he moved out he left me his Qur’an…and from then on, my journey began. That was back in 2001.

It wasn’t until I was in the county jail in 03-04 that I really began to study for myself. I went heavily into Christianity seeking to prove it true, as this is what I was raised on, but the more I studied, the more I saw inconsistencies…what did it for me was learning about the Council of Nicea which is when the Bible was officially compiled under the direction of the Emperor Constantine. He arbitrarily added and subtracted certain books of the Bible that were in circulation, as well as inserted “Pagan” beliefs into Christianity in order to fit his agenda (uniting his kingdom, which consisted of a large population of “Pagans”).

It was Constantine who inserted into Christianity the concept of the Trinity (the idea of the Father, Son, and Holy spirit being One). It was this diluting of the original teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him) that nececitated the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). One of the books that we know were in circulation as a part of the Bible, was the Gospel of Barnabas, which mentions in no uncertain terms, that the last prophet to be commissioned would be Muhammad (peace be upon him). A lot of the early Unitarian Christians who were located mainly in North Africa knew this, which accounts for that region accepting the message of Islam as soon as they received wind of the one foretold.

The more I studied, the more convinced I became. But once I read the Qur’an I knew…it doesn’t read like you would expect a religious text to read…it’s not a historical account…most Muslims in explaining their first encounter with the Qur’an, describe it as if Allah (God) was talking directly to them…and that’s how it felt…like, I knew…and the rest is history.